Some of his fellow fighters knew him simply as ‘Red Beard’ because of his whiskery facial hair. The mysterious Islamic State militant had made sure to mask his face when mixing with strangers in Raqqa and deleted his social media profiles to prevent anyone except commanders and close friends from discovering his true identity. Given his eccentricity while in private, his secrecy in public seemed surprising. But he had a lot to hide.
The case of Hudaifa Elgerbouzi from West London has never been reported on, thanks in part to his own discretion. But following an ITV News investigation he can now be unmasked as a senior Isis figure involved in the kidnap of western hostages - a lieutenant to members of the all-British execution cell known as ‘The Beatles’, according to multiple sources.
Whitehall officials believe he might even have been a member of the gang rather than an assistant on its periphery.
- ITV News Security Editor Rohit Kachroo explains how Elgerbouzi was associated with a foiled plot inspired by so-called Islamic State to kill civilians, soldiers and police officers in London.
The Londoner was the very first British recruit to join Isis a few days after its formation six year ago, and he soon became notorious, even among other fighters, for his bravado and brutality. “He was a psychopath… trying to fulfil his violent and criminal fantasies with God’s stamp of approval,” said one of his close associates in Syria, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But it was when he teamed up with friends from West London to help form a cell of British fighters that he entered the upper echelons of the organisation. “He was willing to justify anything sadistic or anything wrong that Isis had done without feeling in any way funny about it,” said the former friend, describing his “unquestioning” commitment to the group.
Elgerbouzi planned to go to Syria alongside a former school-friend, Alexande Kotey, who he had held in high regard since they were both teenagers. That classroom affection continued when they reached the Islamic State, where Kotey allegedly became the lead member of an execution gang described by its hostages as ‘The Beatles’ because of their British accents. The group included Mohammed Emwazi, known as ‘Jihadi John’, who was filmed by Isis executing captives and who had also been a friend of Elgerbouzi’s in London.
“These guys were essentially like an intelligence branch of Isis” said Elgerbouzi’s one-time associate in Syria. “If we were to talk business, Kotey would be the Chief Executive while Red Beard would be described as Chief Operations Officer. He was in charge of a lot of the logistics. He would get them things and move them around.”
“He would visit them quite frequently in the area they were staying, which was in the northern Alleppo countryside. He would disappear for periods of time saying he was going to do work, without specifying what he was doing. He was very trusted by these guys and they seemed to hold him in quite high regard.”
“The killing of western hostages, I don’t know about, but the kidnapping and the captivity of these men, I am fairly sure he was (involved).”
Elgerbouzi’s friends, Shafee Elsheikh, Aine Davies and Mohammed Emwazi are widely believed to have been members of the cell. Elsheikh and Kotey are currently facing extradition to the United States to be tried for their alleged actions in Syria. ITV News was able to contact Davies, who is being held in a prison in Turkey and denied knowing Elgerbouzi.
But the identities of the group’s members have never been settled. Because captors wore masks, the accounts given by some of their surviving hostages have not offered total clarity. And because only one member of the kidnap gang, Mohamed Emwazi, was heard speaking in Isis propaganda videos, voice recognition analysis has been unable to confirm who some of the other members were. Confusion about their precise roles is compounded by suggestions there might have been a fifth hostage-taker.
Nicolas Henin, a French journalist who survived ten months detention at the hands of the cell, believes there were three main captors, rather than four, but those members were supported by a broader group of other men.
“Identifying these individuals who were taking good care to stay hidden will definitely be challenging but I’m confident that by crossing different intelligence sources to our testimonies, this work will be successful.”
After assessing multiple accounts gathered over six months, ITV News can reveal Elgerbouzi’s name and role as a key figure working alongside the militants already identified as being members of ‘The Beatles’.
As a teenager in west London, before developing a fascination with violence, Elgerbouzi was boisterous but inconspicuous. His only obvious passion had been for Arsenal Football Club. He was bright - a B-grade student who had developed a determination not to be held back by his dyslexia: “He was proud of it,” said one of several former friends who spoke to ITV News.
Another associate said “Hudaifa was a well-liked guy from the area who was always on hand to help out with problems with the youngsters in and around the area. He enjoyed the normal things… football and the gym.”
One of Elgerbouzi’s deepest friendships was forged on the football fields of west London before flourishing on the battlefields of Syria and can now be linked to an intercontinental plot to attack London: Tarik Hassane is currently serving a life sentence in a British prison for his role in the plan. ITV News understands the men were in contact while the plot to assassinate soldiers, police officers and civilians was being formulated.
Our search for evidence linking both men began with documents unearthed from the archives of a local soccer league which confirm the pair had played alongside each other for an amateur side in 2010.
“Hudaifa and Tarik were really close,” recalls a former teammate - another former friend who spoke to ITV News but asked not to be identified. “They used to love, love football. They would come down to train every Friday.
“They were decent young players - especially Hudaifa. He was an attacking midfielder, a solid tackler.”
The pair were considered rising stars until they and their team-mates were disqualified after their squad was involved in a fight during a game. Notes from a report filed by the league’s disciplinary committee following the incident describe “fighting on pitch and in dressing rooms, police involved weapons being used”. Metropolitan Police officers were called to investigate and made an appeal for witnesses, but no charges were pressed.
The team was disbanded and, according to some friends, the men appeared to become radicalised shortly afterwards. Two and a half years later, they decided to travel to Syria to join the armed conflict.
“Maybe they got bored in London” said the former teammate. “They just vanished. We thought Hudaifa had gone to Egypt to study.”
But he hadn’t. Elgerbouzi, who was aged 20 at the time, had joined an aid convoy, apparently deceiving its organisers about his intentions in Syria, according to several sources. Records seen by ITV News show he entered Turkey from Greece in 2012 at the Ipsala border gate. He then encouraged Hassane, who was 19 years old, to follow him a few weeks later and move into the home he had already set up. In Syria, both men learned to use weapons and joined Isis, which was still in its formative stages.
Hassane returned to London after a few months - Elgerbouzi stayed behind. But together, using video-messaging, they continued to discuss their plans, despite the distance of more than 2,000 miles between them.
ITV News understands the men discussed the West London plot - what would have been Islamic State’s first attack in the UK. Hassane had intended to carry out the assassinations while riding on the back of a moped - a drive-by attack targeting Shepherd’s Bush police station and the Parachute Regiment Territorial Army Barracks in White City, which he had identified on Google Street View. But the plot was foiled and Hassane was jailed in 2016.
The pair didn’t act alone. They had been working with their old friend from West London, Alexande Kotey. Elgerbouzi’s role planning alongside them can be revealed here for the first time.
Last year ITV News reported that Kotey was a co-conspirator in the so-called ‘moped plot’- helping to direct the attack from Syria, communicating with Hassane in London. Conversations between Hassane and his friends in Syria were among the two million files totalling 22 terabytes that were examined by detectives investigating the moped case. It took officers 44,834 hours to examine the data, which is said by a police source to have provided “a goldmine of information” in the fight against Isis.
Unlike many other violent extremists who travelled from the UK, Elgerbouzi took great care to delete his ‘digital footprint’ once he arrived in Syria. Even though, as one friend said, he had become “a showman” by the time he left London to join Isis, he tried to become ‘invisible’ to his friends back home.
But a collection of images that look like something from a five-star ‘lads’ holiday’ offer more clues about the association between Elgerbouzi and Kotey. They were posted in 2012 on extremist social media accounts, shortly after both men arrived in Syria.
The photographs capture young men enjoying the sun in a sumptuous villa and helped to provide an enticing image for some future recruits. One of the men can be seen performing pull-ups in what appears to be an outdoor gym. Others swim towards the sunset in a rooftop pool. But the faces of the men have been digitally obscured before the pictures were published, presumably to conceal their identities from the authorities back home.
By studying what is visible in the images - the distinctive kidney-shaped pool, its perimeter and landmarks in the background of the images - we have concluded that the three pictures were taken in the same place: Reif al-Muhandiseen, a suburb of Aleppo, and around the same time in 2012, shortly after Elgerbouzi, Hassane and Kotey arrived in Syria.
And by asking former friends of both men to study the images, we are confident that the man pictured being raised from the pool into the air by a friend is Alexande Kotey. Another is seen nearby reclining on top of metal railings, is Hudaifa Elgerbouzi. Our analysis suggests that both men were in the same villa in Syria around the same time in 2012.
By the moment the images were posted online, their disappearance was causing concern among friends and relatives at home.
“I was surprised to hear he had gone and went so early on, but at that it was more of a war against Assad forces. It was right at the start, way before the whole Isis stuff came about” said one close friend.
“But in hindsight he was a strong character and if there was anyone who would have gone, it was definitely him.”
Confusion remains about the identity of some of The Beatles and their wider support network. Elgerbouzi is one of a small number of British jihadists who have been considered by international investigators for involvement with the cell.
Officials believe Elgerbouzi was killed while fighting in Syria last year. So, he will not face the type of global sanctions that were placed on his friends, Kotey and Elsheikh. He will not witness the final firefights for the caliphate, and nor will he face justice.